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US Department of Agriculture plans measures to enable coexistence

US court bans GM sugar beet: Cultivation to take place under controlled conditions?

Following the decision by a US court to suspend approval of the cultivation of genetically modified sugar beet, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is planning to pass measures before the end of the year to allow restricted cultivation under controlled conditions. The comprehensive environmental impact assessment requested in the court ruling should be completed in two years. The assessment will focus primarily on the potential outcrossing of GM sugar beet to related crops and wild plant species.

Tom Vilsack, Secretary USDA

Tom Vilsack, US Agriculture Secretary: “The steps we’ve introduced not only respond to the concerns of producers while complying with the court’s ruling, but also further USDA’s continuing efforts to enable coexistence among conventional, organic and biotechnology production systems.”

Herbicide-tolerant sugar beet (left), conventional sugar beet without weed control (right). Cultivation trials in the Üplingen display garden.

On 13 August 2010 a district court in California decided to overturn a 2005 decision to allow the cultivation of GM sugar beet. The ruling takes effect from the start of the next growing season. The ruling upheld some of the points made by environmental and consumer organisations in a case brought against USDA. In particular, the court criticised the fact that the department had not produced a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS) for the GM sugar beet. It claimed that USDA had failed to fully investigate the consequences of a potential gene flow from GM sugar beet to related crops, like mangold and beetroot.

The GM sugar beet developed jointly by Monsanto and KWS Saat AG is resistant to herbicides based on the active ingredient glyphosate. Since this makes complicated weed control simpler and more effective, GM sugar beet and the new form of weed control have caught on quickly. Just three years after it came onto the market, GM sugar beet is grown on 470,000 hectares (95 per cent of the total area planted with sugar beet in the USA) and provides around half of the sugar consumed in the USA.

Even if the GM sugar beet sown in 2010 can be harvested and used without restrictions, the ruling by the Californian court means that the GM sugar beets approved in 2005 have lost their ‘deregulated’ status. Unrestricted cultivation is no longer permitted for the time being. Nevertheless, according to a press release published on 1 September 2010, USDA intends to put in place a raft of rules and regulations before the end of the year to make it possible to continue using the GM sugar beet under controlled conditions until the environmental impact assessment ordered by the court is complete. As US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced, the steps are intended to “enable coexistence among conventional, organic and biotechnology production systems.”

In the view of the Californian court, when USDA approved the GM sugar beet, it did not consider in enough detail how conventional and organic sugar beet farming could be protected against undesirable GMO contamination. The same applies to the cultivation of mangold and beetroot, two crops that are related to sugar beet and can cross with it.

Flowers and pollen only in the second year

Sugar beets are biennial plants: the plant produces the beet in the first year and flowers in the second. In farming, beets are harvested before they product pollen and seeds. Because of this, outcrossing events among sugar beet are only possible in the rare cases of annual plants that flower prematurely. It is in the farmer’s own interest to destroy such bolters. If their seeds remain in the soil they can germinate at a later date and flower again.

When buying GM sugar beet seed, farmers have to sign an agreement undertaking to monitor their fields at regular intervals and to remove any bolters immediately. In the few small sugar beet growing areas of the USA, pollen formation and outcrossing are unlikely, especially since conventional sugar beet is now grown only in a small area of California. Likewise, wild beet, a potential crossing partner for cultivated beet, is not found in any of the sugar beet growing areas of the USA apart from southern California.

Seed growing: Minimum separation distance from mangold and beetroot

The situation is completely different in areas where sugar beet seed is produced. In the USA this occurs almost exclusively in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. In order for seeds to form, the beet plants have to flower. Their pollen can be spread by the wind. Numerous studies have shown that outcrossing is possible at distances of up to 1000 metres. Conventional and organic mangold and beetroot farming is also affected.

Irrespective of the latest court ruling, the plant breeders in the Willamette Valley observe minimum separation distances between the propagation fields for GM sugar beet and fields growing mangold and beetroot. Some companies prescribe a minimum distance of 1.5 miles (2438 m). Beetaseed, a subsidiary of the German company KWS Saat AG prescribes a minimum distance of 4 miles (6437 m).

The steps announced by USDA are likely to be based on existing practice.

  • For GM sugar beet seed production, isolation distances will be prescribed that are sufficient to prevent outcrossing to related crops as far as possible. For the time being, fields on which seed is produced must be approved under the provisions for release experiments.

  • When growing GM sugar beet, farmers can expect to have to comply with conditions and checks which commit them to removing bolters. These measures are designed to prevent pollen formation. More stringent restrictions may be prescribed for California, which not only has a small ‘GM-free” sugar production area, but also has isolated populations of wild beet.

According to USDA’s announcement, steps will be in place by the end of the year, following consultation with other agencies and the public, to bring the use of GM sugar beet into line with the ruling of the Californian court. The USDA intends to complete the environmental impact assessment requested by the court within two years. GM sugar beet could then be ‘deregulated’ again, possibly with new requirements or conditions.

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